Our View | Farm bill far from perfect, but ag funding is necessary

With Ag Progress Days ending Thursday and the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair coming next week, agriculture stands in the spotlight these days.

Each event showcases the importance of farming to our lives, a reminder of what produces our daily food and still sustains many Centre County families.

They also underscore the need for Congress to support farmers by finally passing an overdue farm bill, critical legislation that has withered on the vine for too long.

“Absolutely necessary,” U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson recently told the Centre Daily Times editorial board.

“We always assure that this country has the most affordable, safest, highest-quality food supply, and food security.”

But so far, Thompson and his congressional colleagues haven’t reaped any success.

The main sticking point, ironically, is food — food stamps, to be precise. Historically, about 80 percent of the farm bill has funded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

The pairing of food stamps and agricultural aid started around the 1970s to win votes for farm bills from urban district legislators, Thompson said, noting by that time most Americans were “too many generations removed from the farm, including members of Congress.”

“They did a marriage of convenience,” he said.

It looks like the relationship has soured.

House Republicans, including Thompson, have called for reforms to the food stamp program to curb perceived benefit fraud and abuse. They also have proposed funding cuts to reduce federal spending.

In June, the Republican-controlled House voted on a farm bill that included food stamp reforms and reductions as well as measures to increase the efficiency of agricultural aid programs. The bill failed, leading Thompson, who voted in favor, to declare afterward that “politics trumped good government” and that his colleagues had “demonstrated a failure to lead.”

For its part, the Senate has passed its own version, keeping the Title IV funding, the so-called “nutrition title,” intact but adding some administrative reforms to the program.

Last month, the House tried again. This time it passed a farm bill that ducked the food stamp issue and omitted any reference to nutrition title spending whatsoever.

Given many Republicans’ concern about food stamps, the bill — supported by all but 12 Republicans but no Democrats — seems little more than a symbolic, face-saving act by House leaders who now can say they passed something.

Thompson went along with it, despite his beliefs about the need for reforms and his reservations about the correctness of splitting farm aid and food stamps. The House still must hammer out its own nutrition title spending, since it’s mandatory, but why back an incomplete bill in the first place other than to be a loyal soldier?

Maybe Thompson let politics trump principles.

Nevertheless, he believes there’s light at the end of the corn row. Thompson expects a farm bill soon to go into conference committee, where compromises between House and Senate legislation are struck.

“We’re close on that,” he said.

He added that the goal is to have a bill for the president to sign by the end of September.

We think that’s great news.

This Congress, already matching its historic predecessor in inactivity and unpopularity, needs to show some leadership and help America.

Some food stamp fraud probably exists. But hungry children and families who depend on the aid — plenty of whom live in rural districts, we might add — shouldn’t be held hostage by reform attempts or fiscal austerity crusades.

And neither should farmers, who deserve a comprehensive federal agriculture and conservation policy that matches the times and benefits both producers and consumers.

“We’ve got to get it done,” Thompson said.

Separate farm and food stamps bills could make sense in the future. Thompson agrees. But until attitudes change, he said, now isn’t the time.

Many Americans, he said, still don’t understand where their food originates. We get it here in Centre County, in one of only about 100 congressional districts that commercially produce food.

But not everyone has Ag Progress Days, Grange Fair, farmers markets and an abundance of local farms reminding them.

“We could successfully split (the farm bill and food stamps) if we fulfilled the mission of reconnecting people to the farm,” Thompson said.

“It’s important that you vote for agriculture because that’s how we have affordable food. We’re on that course, but we’re not there yet.”